10 June 1190: Barbarossa meets a watery end

One of medieval Europe’s most powerful crusaders drowns, leaving his army in disarray


In the early months of 1190, terrible news swept Asia Minor. Three years after Saladin had recaptured Jerusalem, the crusaders were returning. This time their expedition would be led by one of the most powerful men in Christendom: the Holy Roman Emperor himself, the colossally experienced and accomplished German king Frederick Barbarossa. On 18 May, Frederick smashed the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Iconium. Jerusalem was in his sights. A titanic showdown with Saladin seemed only a matter of time.

But then fate made an extraordinary intervention. On 10 June, Frederick’s army was just outside Silifke, in southern Turkey, and attempting to cross the river Saleph, when something went terribly wrong. Medieval chroniclers told different stories: some said the emperor had decided to go for a dip to cool off on a sweltering day, but others said that he had been leading his troops across the ford when his horse slipped and threw him into the cold water. Some claimed that Frederick drowned, others that he died from a heart attack brought on by the shock.

In the days following his death, everything went wrong for the late emperor’s army. His son, Frederick of Swabia, led them south, but they were ravaged by desertions and disease. In Antioch, Barbarossa’s body was boiled and filleted to remove his bones. His flesh was buried in the cathedral church of St Peter. The army hung on to his bones, hoping to bury them in Jerusalem. But they never made it to the city, and the bones found their resting place in Tyre instead. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

10 June 1692

Bridget Bishop became the first person to be executed during the Salem witch trials when she was hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. | Listen to all episodes in our podcast series on the Salem Witch Trials

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